Making a great motion picture isn’t that difficult. All it really takes are two things. There must be a cast made up of actors who can handle any demand, from a heart-pounding moment of drama to a free-for-all comedy assault. It’s also mandatory to have a script that evokes real emotions without being cloying, takes a smart look at life without coming across as seeing the world through a superior viewpoint and presents dialogue rich in subtleties delivered in a real world manner.
Why there isn’t an assembly line of great movies being cranked out comes down to productions not having one or both of those elements. Even a 90 percent effort on both doesn’t play out to pure greatness.
Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” is so rich in the two elements that it deserves a place on the list of the best films of the year. It’s a marvelous tale of friendship, family, duty, respect, pain and fear that comes to life through the sterling performance by Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston.
In 2003, former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) tracks down ex-Marines Sal (Cranston) and Mueller (Fishburne), two men he served with during the Vietnam War 30 years earlier. Shepherd hasn’t seen the two men for decades but enlists them in the solemn duty of helping him transport and bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Although both men have gone on to very different lives, they finally agree to help.
Their last mission together changes dramatically when the truth about the death of Shepherd’s son is revealed. The three men are forced into a longer journey to get the casket to a final resting place while making personal journeys of reflection and reconnection.
Linklater’s script — co-written with Darryl Ponicsan — is so beautifully fashioned, all Linklater had to do was allow his actors to bring their boundless skills to the project. His direction is very simple, never moving too far away from an intimate look at the players. He was smart enough with his three main stars to select actors who are as accomplished in dealing with drama as they are handling comedy.
There are some funny moments in “Last Flag Flying,” usually the result of some passionate and painfully honest declaration by Cranston’s character about everything from the military to religion. His rants could have overpowered the story but having Fishburne play a preacher gives the movie a nice balance. Linklater was smart enough to recognize that Carell is at his best when he’s forced to play a confined role. That doesn’t mean his emotional waves are not grand, it just means that Carell can show the deep pain of a father losing a son with just a look.
Watching Cranston, Fishburne and Carell give life to Linklater’s words is like getting to watch three master painters at work. Each attacks the canvas with a very different style but what they create together is made stronger by the other.
It would have been easy for Linklater to make this an anti-war film or a pro-military production. There are moments when both are discussed with a kick-to-the-gut frankness but the big ticket political items always give way to the very human aspects of this story. It is through this weird trip that all three men face the reality that they are carrying burdens and finally realize the load is not nearly as heavy when shared.
The film is set in 2003, but Linklater shows through comparisons between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War that the way soldiers fight battles may change but the effect war has on those who serve has not changed. It’s how those soldiers deal with the aftermath that is the core of the story.
“Last Flag Flying” will be compared to other TV and film productions about dealing with soldiers after their service has ended. Recently released “Thank You for Your Service” uses the theme of how soldiers deal with the mental and physical scars of war, but that film doesn’t tackle the topic with the brutal honesty of “Last Flag Flying.”
It’s closer to the memorable 2009 Kevin Bacon project “Taking Chance” or the 1973 Hal Ashby film “The Last Detail.” “Taking Chance” dealt with the deeply emotional story of transporting a Marine to his hometown for burial. In the case of “The Last Detail,” that storyline featured two Marines (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) escorting a young sailor (Randy Quaid) to the Portsmouth Naval Prison. The journey the three men make is also one filled with discovery and reflection. “Last Flag Flying” is in good company as “The Last Detail” picked up three Academy Award nominations.
“Last Flag Flying” will be compared to these films, but its cast and script make it an original. It’s a salute to the strength of the human spirit as presented by three phenomenal performers playing out a touching and unforgettable story that solidifies Linklater’s place among the best directors working today.
Last Flag Flying
Rated: R for language and sexual references. Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne. Director: Richard Linklater. Running time: 124 minutes. Theater: Edwards 21.